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Why They Want a ‘Rule, Britannia!’ Culture War

Reforming the Last Night of the Proms was never a left-wing demand – but by elevating the controversy, the Tories can consolidate their base, disguise their failures and advance their reform agenda for the BBC.

Indulging media confected culture wars should not be the business of anyone with serious political judgement. Manifestly opportunistic, sensational, contrived, and often proxy for British commentariat to explode long-held personal grudges, they constitute farcical and pantomime aspects of British politics.

The lines for the latest ‘culture war’ frontier have, once again, been drawn around the BBC, with reactionaries and careerist commentators alike staking the protection of native Great British identity as dependent on the retention of Rule, Britannia! at the Last Night of the Proms. The proposed removal of the lyrics of Rule, Britannia! due to the apparent offence caused by the line “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” has been the catalyst for this tedious eruption – the idea being that an ersatz instrumental-only rendition is insulting the dignity of Brits and concedes to the “looney left” agenda of undermining the greatness of the Empire.

That greatness, according to Andrew Neil, includes Britannia ruling the waves such that the Royal Navy could intercept ships carrying slaves and free hundreds of thousands of Africans – because according to these revisions, a game of Battleships is the panacea for centuries of colonialism, enslavement, genocide and epistemicide.

Despite claims that the removal of these lyrics is a concession to the cultural zeitgeist inspired by the international Black Lives Matter movement, the demands to remove these lyrics are not the political property of Black Lives Matter activists, Black Britons, or indeed that nebulous category, “the left,” as reactionaries obsessively declare. When George Floyd was murdered, no one was thinking about Rule, Britannia!

This is just quite a late-stage consequence of that period of liberal self-reflection, which constituted arts industries self-flagellating over non-PC content rather than taking seriously the material and abolitionist demands which had characterised this wave of Black Lives Matter protests. This is not to absolve Rule, Britannia! – of course, the way in which it frames Britishness as incompatible with slaveness is a lyrical expression for how the slave trade and colonial violence made Black people’s existence coterminous with slaveness, and as such enabled whiteness at large to be consolidated. But it is cynical to imply that this has been the preoccupation of those whose protests are about the police, the carceral state and fundamental dignity for Black lives.

That the BBC is once again at the epicentre of such a cultural storm is worthy of some assessment. Within quite a broad timeline of the BBC’s institutional ‘progressive’ reforms, the Last Night of the Proms has long been a contested site. In the past two decades, column inches have been dedicated to reviewing how out-of-date and racially homogeneous the Last Night is. It is not that the Last Night has retained its quintessential traditionalism as some form of cultural conservation rather, as Tom Service wrote in The Guardian in 2006, it became a kind of commercially-driven “postmodern kitsch” to appeal to cosmopolitan audiences, wherein the gimmicks of British nationalism are staged for their novelty alone.

As Service continues “the Last Night can have nothing meaningful to say about British identity – apart from being a reassuring reminder of why things were better in the olden days.” Following controversy in 2008 from then Culture and Tourism Minister Margaret Hodge claiming the Proms were too white, and her subsequent rebuke by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Opposition Leader David Cameron, Sarfraz Manzoor wrote The only Asian in the audience to support these claims that the Last Night was, in fact, overwhelmingly white – even if he, himself, didn’t find it to be much of a bother.

While the Last Night of the Proms has since remained quite traditional, the rest of the BBC Proms season, which spans around 8 weeks, has been credited for offering increasingly diverse programmes, showcasing an eclectic directory of musical talents from Afropop to Reggae to Bollywood. Chineke! Orchestra, Britain’s first majority BAME orchestra, made their Proms debut in 2017. To many minds the conservation of the Last Night is perhaps to appease reactionaries who may criticise the Proms’s inclusivity, and it is therefore easy to see how and why right-wing media has so successfully capitalised on the slightest interruption of its customs.

There is the obvious point that culture wars provide a convenient distraction to unfavourable news items, particularly when the offending issue inflames core sections of your audience or voting coalition. For Conservative-supporting Murdoch media like The Sunday Times which broke the story, the Proms are a politically expedient site because the adaption of classical spaces over time to be inclusive of both classical and non-classical, non-western and non-white music so snuggly fits the motif of “political correctness.”

While the A-level fiasco seemed to confirm many of the criticisms of the government’s competence, even to older or more right-wing voters, the Conservatives with anti-PC traditionalism is a reminder of why they must be supported in the face of cultural threats from the emerging generations. Hence Boris Johnson’s intervention that he “cannot believe” the decision the BBC have made over the Proms, as if there are not more significant concerns for the Prime Minister at this present juncture.

But more urgently, any Murdoch lackey hoping to succeed in an industry which depends on currying favour with the boss will find that attacks on the BBC, which Murdoch is known to hate, will be favourable to their career. Press attacks against the BBC on cultural grounds tend to build even larger coalitions of displeasure than claims of anti-Conservative bias.

It is worth remembering that the economic policies which the Conservatives have pursued in government for the past decade – namely, fiscal austerity, cuts to public services and privatisation – are enormously unpopular now. So much so, in fact, that they have been forced to disown them. Today’s Conservative Party consolidates its grip through cultural appeals rather than its economic policies or political competence. 

The appeal of constantly resurrecting long-term conspiracist claims that the BBC has been seized by so-called “cultural Marxism” (a far-right and antisemitic conspiracy theory), is that it enables support for the Conservatives to reshape the broadcaster as an instrument of cultural and political hegemony, a feat they cannot achieve through accusations of anti-Tory bias alone. Certainly, the BBC question is one which the Conservatives are grappling with and, even if there is not uniform agreement over what form it should take.

The campaign to #DefundTheBBC is reaching fever pitch with physical billboards now erected across the United Kingdom. Free-marketeers such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute, and David Elstein have long called for the BBC to be funded through subscriptions. This is not the Conservative plan – their preference is a compliant BBC which can project a cultural and political hegemony that serves their interests. But the public service broadcaster must be browbeaten into that position, and what better way to achieve that than the threats to remove not only its funding but its status more generally?

The BBC’s recent progression in culture and entertainment has attempted to recognise its failure to engage young audiences who are more invested in subscription-based streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+. Indeed, the outgoing Chairman of the BBC, Sir David Clementi, highlighted this difficulty the BBC faces in a recent speech. Evidently, some of its more recent commissioning, such as Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag have been attempts to draw in a younger, and more progressive audience, but consequently this becomes fertile ground for the right-wing campaign to identify the BBC as a site of moral and cultural decline.

What we lose by indulging culture wars and engaging in tug-of-war with reactionaries is the broader political picture of how the public broadcaster is being reshaped through government policy and media campaigning. While the BBC’s political value is increasingly difficult to defend, losing sight of the need for a robust defence of its role in our culture would be conceding to right-wing hegemony in ways that would be profoundly damaging – as I have suggested in a previous column, culture is one of the sharpest frontiers of the modern political landscape.